How to Study: Think Like a Teacher and Test-Maker

It’s a common refrain: students don’t know how to study. It’s true that for the most part, kids wants to pull out their notes and review sheets, stare at them for an hour or so, then consider themselves done; but there are a few tried-and-true methods students know about that aren’t that hard to implement and actually are effective. And aside from those few, what else can kids do to study more effectively?

In a 2013 article published in Scientific American, a group of psychologists reviewed over 700 studies on commonly used techniques to evaluate and rate their effectiveness. An archive of the entire article can be found at the link above, and is worth a read, but I’d like to focus on a few of their findings and elaborate with some ideas of my own that I’ve seen work for students in the past.

The article identified two primary strategies as having the greatest effectiveness: self-testing and distributed practice. In other words, those two-sided flash cards are actually a fine idea, as well as any other method a student can devise to quiz him or herself over the material (distributed practice simply means it’s better to study a little each day over a longer period of time than it is to cram a lot of study in a night or two before an exam). Building on this, I’d like to throw out a few other effective self-testing methods that students don’t usually consider.

THINK LIKE A TEACHER

If you work in a study group, arrange to teach a certain amount of your study materials to the other group members at your next study session. Have other members take on different sections of the textbook or notes to teach, and as a group you each take turns sharing what you’ve learned with the other members. It’s important not only for you to know the material you are supposed to explain, but to ask questions of the other members when it’s their turn to ‘teach.’ In this manner, a discussion is generated about the material, instead of just rote memorization or review. It’s a more effective manner of using a study group than simply looking over the materials together at the same time; everyone comes to the group prepared both to teach and to learn.

If you don’t have a study group but work with a tutor or peer, you could do something similar, or just practice ‘teaching’ material to yourself by assigning yourself a topic, preparing to teach it, and then putting the study sheet away while going over it as if you’re teaching it to someone else. You don’t have to stand up at the front of the room and talk out loud to do this, just think of it as constructing the information into a different form from what’s on the review sheet or in the text. Facts are not malleable, but the way in which those facts are presented is, and any time you take what you know and re-shape it into another form you’re deepening your understanding of it. Look at it this way – you’re never totally sure how you are going to be asked to show what you know on an exam, so the more ways in which you are able to look at the information and understand it, the better.

THINK LIKE A TEST-MAKER

Not only does thinking like a teacher help students perform better on exams, so does taking on the role of a test-maker and actually writing your own test questions. Here’s why: coming up with a test question and the proper response is easy, but coming up with three other wrong answers is a challenge, and having to do so reinforces the right answer in your brain. It’s another way to work with the material you’ve been given and manipulate it into a different form so you know it inside and out. Many students move into their freshman year of high school still expecting every test they take to ‘match’ their notes and reviews, only to find that this is not the case – more critical thinking is required. Aside from the fact that you have too much information to memorize anyway, you have to understand the information instead of regurgitate pre-supplied answers. Generating your own test questions out of study materials is an excellent way to add depth to your understanding.

For example, let’s say you take one chapter of a Biology text, and create 10-15 test questions for it as if you are going to give it to someone else. Then, if possible, actually give the assessment to someone else, see how they answer, and go over the results with them. No essay or short answer questions – create 10-15 multiple choice questions, with four answer choices for each one. Reviewing the questions with someone else, if possible, and letting them ask questions  so you  explain your answers will also help you understand the material – and if you find an answer that isn’t correct, it helps you know where your knowledge is falling short.

This all may sound like it takes too much time, but if you’re following the second recommendation of the Scientific American study (distributed practice), you’re only doing a little bit of this at a time over the course of a week or several days rather than all in one big session. It’s more engaging, it generates interesting discussion and thought processes, and it helps you understand the material as well as giving you test-taking practice. You can’t get all of that from simply looking over the notes and textbook and hoping you’ll be prepared. 

THINK LIKE A GOOD GUESSER

Creating your own test questions out of your study material is also excellent test-taking preparation. Creating test questions gets you comfortable with answering them, and gets you inside the mind of a test-maker, which is more valuable that you might think. Once you’ve gone through the process of creating multiple-choice questions yourself, you have a better idea how to break an exam down and understand the ‘tricks’ of that particular trade.

This not only helps you when you are trying to decide between answer choices on an exam and are not sure which one is best. It can also help you at those times when flat-out guessing is necessary (it happens to all of us). In addition, tips such as these from Brigham Young University  are essential for learning how to navigate the different types of test questions you encounter on a typical exam. Print out these tips and commit them to memory – they will save you more often than you might think!

THINK LIKE AN ENGAGED LEARNER

As with everything else regarding your education, communication with the teacher is key. You should never go into an exam without knowing what sort of test is going to be handed out: is it multiple choice, fill in the blank, essay, matching? A combination of all of these? If so, how much? Some teachers will give the class all this information in advance, down to the number of each type of question, the amount of time each one should take, as well as how many points each one will be worth. But some won’t tell you a thing unless you ask them – so if they don’t tell you, you must ask! Knowing an exam is all essay means you’ll prepare differently than if it’s matching, true/false, or multiple choice, so you  need to arm yourself with that knowledge.*

Another overlooked key to successful assessment: you must go over your exams with your teachers – at least the first few, if not every single one. It’s imperative that you understand how the questions you missed should have been answered; you need to know the teacher’s expectations and testing style to better prepare for his or her exams. If you do not go over at least the first exam with each teacher, you are not going to perform to your full potential on assessments in that class. It’s that simple. Every teacher tests differently, and you need to understand why you missed what you did, and how the teacher constructs their tests and quizzes.

Of course, many teachers go over exams with the entire class, but many do not, for various reasons. A teacher’s curriculum is overloaded, and there often isn’t a lot of time for test review. And student absences are a problem – a teacher can’t go over the answers for a test when several students still haven’t taken it. Then often, by the time those kids do take it, too much time has passed and the review gets overlooked (hint: please don’t be that student. If you miss a test due to absence, make it up as soon as you return. It’s better not only for you, but for everyone). If you receive your exam back without getting a review of it in class, email your teacher and request to meet with him or her during a tutoring session to go over the questions you missed. Then, as you do that with your teacher, be sure you understand why you missed them. Pay attention to how the teacher explains the construction of the test too – there’s no reason to memorize those 100 vocabulary terms you are given at the start of each unit if the teacher only tests that vocabulary by throwing those words into test questions, for example. Understand that you need to have enough knowledge of them to figure out their meaning in context, and move on to other information you know is going carry more weight on test day.

So, think like a teacher, test-maker, good guesser, and engaged learner, and you can improve your study skills for quizzes and exams. If you put into play the concept of distributed practice, wherein you teach and test yourself a little bit each day, you’ll be prepared for pop quizzes and last-minute tests as well (it would be nice if every teacher gave you two weeks’ notice for every exam, but we all know this isn’t the case). Don’t settle for reviewing class material in the form it is given to you, re-construct it in creative ways to gain deeper understanding, and as always, involve your teacher in this process by asking questions both before and after the exam. 

*There may be times when a teacher does not want to reveal what form a test is going to take. Quite honestly, sometimes this just means they’ve yet to create it, but there are other reasons for a teacher to do this, and it shouldn’t be assumed the teacher’s being stingy or mean. Some teachers are committed to preparing students for college by expecting them to prepare for any sort of test without being told beforehand; it’s a legitimate situation students face in college, so it makes sense teachers want to prepare you for this in high school. Another reason could be student perception: sometimes getting the information in advance leads to less preparation rather than more. For example, I found  when I taught middle school that if I told students they were having an essay test over a novel, they interpreted that to mean they didn’t need to study for it since “we’ll be able to use our book and there’s only going to be one question.” Sigh. I tried a few times to convince them otherwise, and I thought their low test scores might do the trick if on my own I could not, but in the end I had to stay silent about what kind of test they were going to take in order to ensure they prepared for it. If you do encounter a teacher who chooses to keep the form of a test secret until the day of, it’s going to be even more important for you to review that test with him or her after it is graded so you can keep it in mind for the next one. Chances are they will test and grade in a similar manner in the future, even if they don’t tell you in advance what it will be like, and you’ll have to keep that in mind. 

READY TO GET STARTED? Contact me at cynthia@coxtutoring.com, call or text me at 281-346-9372, or use my contact page. 

Re-Thinking Classroom Accommodations

As a teacher, I was given checklists at the beginning of every school year listing the accommodations I was required to provide students in my classes with learning disabilities. Over the years, I came to know those checklists well, and later, as a coordinator for students with accommodations, I got used to filling them out and distributing them to teachers. For the most part, the checklists looked almost the same for every student. Sure, there were differences here and there, but there were also standard accommodations that came up in the testing reports for every single child – things like, check for understanding of verbal instructions, and re-direct if student is off-task. 

I fully admit that as a classroom teacher, I was baffled by accommodations such as these. What good teacher wasn’t already re-directing off-task students and checking to be sure the kids understood instructions? And as a school counselor in charge of a student accommodations program, I would wonder if parents found such accommodations concerning – if something like ‘check for understanding of instructions’ had to be included on a legal document of accommodations, what did that mean for students in the class without such a document? For that reason, when I facilitated parent/teacher conferences for students with learning differences, I would actually point out that many of the accommodations on the list were things teachers provided all students – it just felt like something that needed to be said!

Over time, though, my perspective changed about such accommodations. Perhaps it was because I read through those checklists so many times in so many meetings that my thinking about them expanded as a natural consequence, but for whatever reason I began to view them not as tasks or strategies a teacher was required to implement for that child, but as a list of signs for the teacher to observe that indicated the student was struggling with his or her disability. In other words, the accommodation to re-direct an off-task student really means: Look. When this kid is off-task, it’s because she’s struggling with her ADHD, not because she’s being disrespectful, so please help her out and gently re-direct her.

I think when we view a list of accommodations as examples of how kids with learning differences struggle, we are more attentive to other signs and struggles that may not even be written down on paper. We’re also more open to inventing new strategies that work better for that particular child. It’s a paradigm shift, really, in how we perceive that checklist.

The document itself didn’t change as I moved into a small-group setting to work specifically with students who had learning disabilities, but my perception of it did, and it became more useful to me as a result. Instead of just a legal document of obligations, it was a guide map – a way to navigate the student’s struggles so he or she could move forward. Once the checklist became a document that could help me understand that child, instead of just a list of things I was supposed to do for them, I could help shape it into something better and more effective. It’s a shift in thinking and not so much a shift in behavior, but I think viewing accommodations this way increased my sensitivity to the roadblocks that get in a student’s way, and as a result, I was able to be more effective, and more compassionate, towards my students.

READY TO GET STARTED? Contact me at cynthia@coxtutoring.com, call or text me at 281-346-9372, or use my contact page. 

How to Meet and Greet Your Teachers

Your teachers put a lot of thought into making the right impression on students the first time the class meets (except for those who put no thought into it whatsoever, but even in that case – and perhaps more so – it still makes an impression!), but what can you do to make the right impression on them, when you’re one of as many as 100, 120, or even 150 students they will encounter throughout the day? Unfortunately the kids who often make strong first impressions are the ones who show up late to class, don’t follow the dress code, or refuse to pay attention while they speak, but if that’s not the sort of attention you want to generate, how can you distinguish yourself among the all other motivated, friendly, and cooperative kids who shuffle in and out that teacher’s door amidst the chaos of the first few days? If simply showing up, being polite, and paying attention doesn’t do it, what else is there? And does it really matter, anyway?

I’d suggest that, while it isn’t crucial, it does matter to make an impression as soon as possible, if for no other reason than most students won’t do it, and it’s an easy way to make an early connection that will benefit you as you move through the year. What I would suggest is that at some point in the first week of school, you introduce yourself to your teachers. Sure, they’ve already called your name out during roll call, and you’ve told them you were present so they could match your face to your name. But that’s just a procedure, and not really an introduction. Perhaps they had some ice breaker games or had you write out some information about yourself on a form – but that’s all stuff other kids are doing, too. I’m suggesting you take it one step further, and personally introduce yourself to your teachers.

In my opinion, the easiest way to do this is with a note card. That way, you have time to write out exactly what you want to say, and hand it over to the teacher without having to remember any of it in the moment. Plus, teachers are often busy both before and after class, and standing by awkwardly waiting for a free moment to speak to them can really whittle down your confidence. So, if you see an opportunity and feel comfortable extending your hand, introducing yourself, telling the teacher you are excited to be in their class, and thanking them for being your teacher, then go for it. But it may be much easier to hand them a note card, smile, and take your seat (if it’s the start of class) or leave the classroom (if it’s after). If the teacher is busy at the moment, they can put the card aside and read it later when they have time.

You could also make your introductions through email, but in my opinion a hand-written note is a nicer gesture, especially at the beginning of the year. Still, emails are certainly an acceptable form of communication with teachers nowadays, so if it feels best to you to do it that way, it would work – just be sure to format the email properly and be cognizant of your tone. Emails are easy to misread, and you want to be sure your message comes across clearly. Be it note card or email,  be sure the message includes your full name (first and last) and the class period you are in (teachers won’t know right away who you are, so help them out), and a thank you to them for being your teacher. That’s really all it needs to say, but you can also include anything you might want them to know about you, like being on the swim team, or being a new student at the school, or having a learning disability of which they should be aware. If you like the subject they teach, you could share that, or, if you struggle in that subject, let them know that too. If the teacher said something the first day that caught your attention, you could mention that. Whatever you say, keep it brief, and be sincere. You’re not trying to kiss up to them so that they give you an A later. You’re letting them know who you are, and that you appreciate the effort they are putting in to teach you.

This may make you nervous because you fear how the teacher will respond. And certainly, we can never predict how others will react to anything we do. Is it possible a teacher might misconstrue your gesture of kindness, and react negatively? Yes, that is always a possibility (although it would be a strange way to react to a kind note expressing gratitude to a teacher!) but remember that you are not doing this to get some sort of reaction from your teachers – that would be manipulation, which is not what I’m suggesting. You are doing it to introduce yourself, and to put your best foot forward for them. Whether or not they appreciate it, you will have still achieved your goal. Celebrate the fact that even though you didn’t get the response you expected, you still did your part and took a risk, and  your actions will still be of benefit to you in the future. For the most part, though, you will get positive responses from your teachers for such a gesture – teachers don’t hear thank you very much at all throughout the year, and they never hear it at the beginning of the year! 

What’s most important about this is that you are taking charge of your learning experience a little bit more than you have before. You are owning your participation in that class, and your connection with that teacher. So, write those notes and file those first-day documents into their proper folders. And then, get ready for a great year!

READY TO GET STARTED? Contact me at cynthia@coxtutoring.com, call or text me at 281-346-9372, or use my contact page.